How do you know if you’re a victim of emotional blackmail?
You think you have a pretty good relationship overall, but those warning bells in your head have been growing louder lately.
You don’t want to call your S.O.’s behavior emotional extortion, but it often feels as though you’re performing at his or her behest with a proverbial knife to your throat.
There are good moments, though. And during those good moments, it’s tempting to think that, while your relationship has its challenges, you’re in a good place. You’ve done what was requested of you, and you’re both riding an emotional high.
Until it ends. And it usually ends with the other person asking you to do something you don’t want to do or to buy something you don’t consider worth the expense — and then lashing out when you say “No” and attempt to explain why.
And then it comes — the ultimatum. “Do this, or else…”
Suddenly your relationship becomes all about moments like this one. The rose-tinted lenses are gone, and all you’re left with is a choice between two painful options: do something you don’t want to do or suffer a painful consequence meted out by the one you hoped would love you unconditionally.
Emotional blackmail in relationships is not a new thing, nor is it rare.
But what is it exactly?
And how do you reclaim your freedom from it?
What is emotional blackmail?
Someone who uses emotional blackmail probably has one or more of the following characteristics:
- A tendency to be overly dramatic
- A judgmental or hyper-critical attitude toward others
If they think they can get away with transferring blame to you and exploiting your guilty feelings, they will. No matter what they’ve done, they always find someone else to blame (and why not you) or some reason to paint themselves as the victim.
These people are often miserable because they make themselves so — often unconsciously — and if they have to be miserable, then they don’t see why you shouldn’t be, too. How dare you feel good about yourself when they find it so hard to like or forgive themselves.
And if they don’t get to heal, move on, or enjoy the present moment, why should you? If they live in a prison of their own making, they insist on collecting souls as desperate for love and approval as they are for consolation and control.
7 Signs of Emotional Blackmail
As emotional blackmail examples go, the seven described here are the most common.
1. They threaten to harm you or someone you love.
It’s pretty common for abusers to threaten others with violence to get what they want. If they’ve already demonstrated their willingness to physically attack you or someone you love, the threat is much more powerful.
It should go without saying that this behavior more than justifies getting away from these abusers as quickly as possible — preferably without leaving a trail for them to follow.
Sometimes the threat of violence or intimidation doesn’t even come in words. If the abuser has already demonstrated a willingness to get loud, slam doors, punch walls, and glare at you as though his tantrum was your fault, this behavior can be stressful enough.
If any children are around to witness it, you feel even more inclined to acquiesce, just to restore “peace.”
2. They threaten to harm themselves.
Some emotional blackmailers will threaten to harm or even kill themselves to make you do what they want –whether that’s to come back to them, to forgive them for hurting you, or to get a job that pays more so they can afford the lifestyle they want.
Their message is the same each time: “Do what I want or I’ll harm/kill myself, and my injury/death will be your fault.” As long as they think you’d blame yourself if they carried out their threat, they’ll keep using it.
And if you call their bluff and walk away, they might harm themselves just so they can blame you for it and see if you’ll accept responsibility.
If you do, they’ve got you right where they want you. If you don’t, they have no power over you (or they’ll have to try something else).
3. They use guilt.
Let's say you want to go somewhere on vacation, but your spouse tells you his parents invited you all somewhere else – and that they’d feel slighted by you if you didn’t come. Your spouse is using guilt to manipulate you.
The hidden message here is that if you don’t do what he wants, he and his parents will see you as selfish, as antisocial, and as someone who doesn’t want to be around them. And they’ll feel bad about it. And your husband will be embarrassed (again). And it’ll be your fault.
It doesn’t mean that those using emotional blackmail are terrible people. Often they don’t even realize they’re using guilt to manipulate you, and they’d likely deny it if you accused them of doing so.
But guilt is guilt, and you probably know at least one person who’s made a habit of using it to their advantage.
4. They provoke you to anger.
Some emotional blackmailers will deliberately provoke you to anger. They will do or say hurtful or offensive things so that when you react in anger, they can play the victim or “the calm one.”
Then they manipulate you into doing (or buying) something they want as atonement for your anger.
If you’re the one who loses control, they use that against you. If you keep your calm, and they lose control, they blame you for that, too. Whether it’s your anger or theirs, you’re the guilty one.
For example, a family member pushes one button after another to get an angry reaction from you and then plays the terrified victim when you so much as raise your voice.
She might expect some “proof” that you still love her to smooth things over. And she probably has something specific in mind.
The hidden message here is that if you don’t do what she asks you to do, you don’t really care about her. And you want to believe she wasn’t deliberately provoking you to anger to get something she wants. Who would do that?
So, you try not to think too much about how she’s done the same thing in the past – and how expensive it’s gotten to prove to her that you still care
5. They use hope.
Santa Claus, anyone?
“You’d better not [do anything I don’t like], because Santa Claus is coming to town, and if you’re ‘good,’ he’ll bring you that thing you want.”
Except he doesn’t (usually). But that doesn’t stop people from using the hope of something good to manipulate others.
And when the hope pays off – at least once in a while – it makes it all the more powerful.
And the more you trust (or want to trust) the one dangling the carrot in front of you, the harder it is to say no. But the thing you’re supposed to hope for has to at least seem well worth the cost of working or waiting for it.
6. They provoke you to jealousy.
Emotional blackmail can also involve jealousy and the fear of loss.
Say you have a boyfriend who has a habit of flirting with every attractive woman he meets. He smiles, looks them up and down, and talks suggestively to them, all while you’re right there watching and hearing everything.
But if you call him on it, he accuses you of being paranoid, jealous, or oversensitive. He’s just being himself – a friendly, gregarious guy who can’t help attracting women. And aren’t you lucky to be his girlfriend when he could have anyone he wanted?
Actually, now that he thinks of it, what have you done lately to prove to him that you deserve to be his girlfriend? If he could have any girl he wanted, why should he stick with someone who doesn’t accept him for who he is?
And suddenly you’re in a rush to prove to him that you do accept him, you do feel lucky to be his girlfriend, and you’re ready to prove it.
7. They use gifts or favors.
One of your parents has come over with a surprise: the ingredients for your favorite dinner! And while she tells you it’s to celebrate a minor accomplishment of yours, it isn’t long before she suggests something she wants you to do.
And as the minutes go by, she needles away at you to the point where you finally tell her you
no intention of doing what she wants.
You begin to explain why, and that’s when she puts on her best theatrical performance of the week – accusing you of taking advantage of her love for you and reminding you of the time and expense involved in making your favorite dish.
She hammers you with how hard she’s tried all her life to steer you in the right direction because “All I want is for you to be happy.” She bewails that you’re as ungrateful and unfeeling as you ever were, and why she keeps trying is beyond her.
And if you’re going to have a peaceful evening and enjoy your favorite meal with this woman – who is, after all, still your mother – you’d best agree to do what she wants.
How to Handle Emotional Blackmail
Emotional blackmailers aren’t necessarily immune to their weapons of choice, and much of their strength lies in your emotional upset. They know that once they’ve gotten you to feel what they want you to feel, they’ve got the leverage they need.
If instead you keep your cool, ask them to clarify their request and the reasoning behind it, and counter their weak points with sound logic, you blunt their weapons.
Unfortunately, this approach also tends to make them furious. And what they do next should give you a pretty good clue as to whether you should run – and how fast.
Beyond that, their reaction will say a lot about what truly matters to them.
- If they listen to your counter-argument and then actually apologize for trying to manipulate you, you might not have to run (just yet).
- If they follow their apology with a “but” statement justifying their approach, back away slowly.
- If they up the ante and get loud and obnoxious to intimidate you, get away as quickly as you can.
- And if they won’t even let you present your argument but immediately launch into an even louder form of emotional blackmail, get yourself to a safe place far away. Don’t be ashamed of asking for help with that, either.
In any case, if the other person’s go-to involves some form of emotional blackmail, and you see no sign of their reconsidering that approach, you’re better off putting distance (physical and emotional) between the two of you and moving on
Related: 8 Signs of Narcissistic Abuse
Flipping the Coin on Emotional Blackmail
Those who use emotional blackmail aren’t always conscious of it. And no matter how hard it may be to forgive them for all they’ve put you through, remember that if they’ve hurt you, it’s doubtless because they’ve also been deeply hurt by someone else.
It doesn’t mean that what they did was okay or that it had no negative effect on anyone. Fortunately for us, compassion and forgiveness free us from the ongoing torture without excusing the offender from any obligation to make amends.
In other words, you don’t have to ignore the crime in order to forgive the criminal and to want their ultimate good.
Forgiving them doesn’t obligate you to stick around, though. If the other person has no intention of seeing their behavior for what it is (and persists in blaming you instead), you have every reason to break free — not only from the effects of their emotional blackmail but from the very person wielding it.
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Do what you can to remove yourself and others you love from this person’s toxic influence but don’t get stuck in a prison of your own by holding onto hatred or resentment.
No matter what someone else has done to you, you can still choose to see them as equals. It’s at least possible their pain is as great as your own and given their upbringing and personality, you might have done the same.
Whatever you’ve been through, if you respond to it with love and compassion — as well as prudence — it can help you become the person you want to be. And the more conscious you are of your connectedness to others, the more you want this for everyone — including those who’ve hurt you.
So, may your compassion for others and for yourself inspire everything you do today.